World by Bike: Slow Down in the South
I'd been told repeatedly that as you head west things get more rural, and distances get longer between towns, but it wasn't until leaving Springfield, Missouri that really confronted the reality of these warnings. By chance on my way out of Springfield, I took a wrong turn and stumbled upon a Walmart. After discovering doughnuts in these supercentres are often less than half the price of gas station doughnuts, I've been stopping at almost everyone I see to load up on food at a good calorie:cost ratio. On that day, day 57 of the trip, it was fortunate I did stop. Leaving Springfield there wasn't a single place of significance to stop for snacks and additional water for the next 60mi / 100km. Following Route 66 towards Joplin was just a rural road with the odd truck for the local farms, and just two towns with a population of around 150 people in each. It's just a relatively large gathering, not a town - that doesn't even register as a village in my head. The lack of stops meant that I was finished with a bulk of my riding my 2pm, and I was arriving in Joplin, Missouri, seemingly famous for no other reason than being mentioned in Chuck Berry's Route 66 song as the next stop after St. Louis.
The evening was spent with Connie and her partner Pat, joyfully encouraging me to eat all their food, discussing the upcoming US mid-term elections and various stories from their experiencing hosting cyclists like myself. It's on these occasions that I can often take encouragement from the calamitous journey's other tourers appear to have had. Connie told of one story in which she hosted a young twenty-something man from China, who'd appeared to miscalculate the conversion of Farenheit to Celcius and was riding Route 66 in July in a sweatshirt and jeans. To make things more difficult, he didn't have bottles cages on his bike and was just buying water from gas stations on his route. Apparently his English wasn't that great, but Connie tried to impress on him that he would need to rectify his hydration strategy if he was to survive the deserts of New Mexico and Arizona, in an attempt to send him back on the road in good consciousness. We're not sure how the tale ended, but it's not the first time I've heard the stories of people biking across the country on a whim with no experience or any idea what they're doing. I find it encouraging because there are times when I feel like I'm pretty clueless when it comes to wild camping, identifying poisonous snakes or the exact workings of how your bike's bottom bracket comes together. But when I hear that people have crossed the country with little spoken English, just heading to a bike store on one side of the country, purchasing some gear with nothing in their corner beyond a bit of cash and a vision to get to the next ocean. It's interesting because I've done a few tours over the last few years, to Paris, Amsterdam, Rome, the world record trip and riding the length of Britain, but I feel like I really don't know anywhere near enough to do this ride. But then I meet others who know vast amounts about the intricate componentry of bikes or building fires in the wilderness, yet sometimes talk to me like I'm like I'm on a crazy, incomprehensible adventure. I find it interesting to work out the difference between the those who seem unprepared and say 'yes' to going, and those who seem well-qualified and watch others do it. It's not always clear who the smart people are in these situations, but it's fun to speculate.
By the morning the pleasant tailwind I'd picked up on the way to Joplin, had done a complete turn and was now blasting me with a 20mph headwind, and the sun had disappeared behind a concerningly overcast sky. I decided that as I was close to the intersection of three states, with Arkansas just another 80 miles south, I'd try to hit four states in a day, despite the wind making me feel like I was pedalling through an overcooked porridge (oatmeal for the limited, but valued international audience). I headed west to Kansas and was promptly underwhelmed by Galena, the largest mining town in south-east Kansas, before then heading south to Oklahoma. I'm not sure how these states were drawn up, but there were no real geographical landmarks at the tri-state intersection of Missouri, Kansas and Oklahoma, just a small monument down a small track letting you know that you'd arrived at the least popular tourist attraction in the Central Time Zone (probably).
With no let-up in the headwind, I headed south towards Arkansas, a hillier but hopefully more interesting route than following Route 66 through north-eastern Oklahoma, where the land was supposed to flatten out. The headwind made for a lengthy day, and the lack of towns to stop in was proving an interesting challenge. The challenge wasn't that I'd run out of food as Pat and Connie had sent me on my way loaded up with snacks, but the challenge was deciphering on the map what settlements would actually prove to have other supplies, like water. The misleadingly titled locations of Tiff City and Southwest City were both smaller than the population of my secondary (high) school, and didn't have many options to entertain a hungry cyclist. Dave's Supermarket in Southwest City did have a selection of cowboy boots and Stetson's on offer though, an encouragement that I was making progress south. The remainder of the ride passed by painfully slowly in the relentless wind, made all the more disheartening when the odd turn in the road would take me out of the wind and I'd feel like I was flying with the increase in speed, always far too short lived before I'd plough back into the oncoming wind.
I was greeted in Siloam Springs, Arkansas with my hosts waving to me from the end of their drive way, guiding me into the small woods that enclosed their house. They were immediately infectiously positive, fun-loving and keen to help out a weary traveller. I liked them. They promptly escorted me to the shower and offered to do laundry for me before asking if I would accompany them to dinner that evening - I'm taking this as kindness rather than evidence that I smelled horrible and they wanted me out of the house. More evidence came of my transition to the south when the couple proceeded to say a prayer before eating, jokingly looking up at me to let me know I was in the Bible Belt now, so I could expect a lot of prayers. We had a great evening discussing their adventures by tandem as they ride across the US in different stages over several years, getting together as total group of 7 friends to ride each section. I love that community aspect of the trip, and they must be quite a sight in a peloton of a tandem, a recumbent tandem and three solo riders. I got a sense that this community spirit was prominent throughout their lives with pretty much the entire population of the Mexican restaurant we visited offering a greeting and extending a hand to them. I found out that they were active in a local church, and in this town all the churches, of different denominations, regularly get together to discuss difficult topics and share ideas. I found this particularly encouraging in a time where opinions on politics, religion and life can seem so polarised, people in this town were managing to find the time, space and openness for civil discourse.
Our conversations continued the next morning making for a relatively late start (again), as I headed westward towards Tulsa, Oklahoma, a place where my only frame of reference is those few episodes of Friends were Chandler gets posted out there for work. However, before leaving Arkansas I visited a Walmart to load up on doughnuts. It was in fact the fourth ever Walmart, with their headquarters not too far east of Siloam Springs in Bentonville - I'm hitting all the secret tourist hotspots on this trip! It's actually really interesting hearing how much Walmart appear to do for the community, with a massive mutli-million (possibly hundreds of millions) dollar investment into building one of the world's best mountain bike trails and facilities. From what I hear, they really do give a lot back to the community #NotAnAd.
Anyway, on my way into Walmart I had my first run-in with a red-neck in a pick-up truck. I was pulling across the road from my haven of the bike lane on the far right of the road, to the left filter lane to enter the Walmart, and Cotton-Eyed Joe in his truck didn't think there was enough space for me to do so. A long blast of his horn, and an expletive-littered rant at my idiocy and existence on the road later, I made it to the Walmart car park. It's incredibly hard to keep a straight face when a man in a pick-up, wife-beater vest and thick southern accent yells at you, ticking every stereotype box. I should probably have been a bit more serious about it as he'd likely have a gun in the glove compartment. However, it felt a lot more must-have experience on the tourist site-seeing list than a particularly dangerous incident, so I rather enjoyed it.
The first few hours of that day went by incredibly easily, with quiet roads and just slow, old dogs chasing me out from their farms, as opposed to the raging canines I'd seen in the previous few days. Helped along by a tailwind and some pleasant downhills, my first couple of hours in Oklahoma went by averaging 16mph, an incredibly high average for my fully laden bike on this tour. However, noticing that my bike map was taking me on a 12 mile detour to avoid a couple of small sections on the freeway, I decided to take matters into my own hands and chance the traffic on the busy Highway 412. Knowing I couldn't stop on the freeway I hit a second Walmart for the day to load up on water and finish my snacks from the morning, hoping to be fuelled for the final 45miles into Tulsa. This is when the temperature dropped and the rains started. By the end of my lunch break I was shaking in the cold and knew I'd struggle to warm up in the downpour. Definitely not excited by the prospect of an extra 12 miles in this weather, I hit the freeway and charged up the hard-shoulder, looking for the nearest exit onto smaller roads once I'd crossed the river, the main barrier limiting road choices in this Cherokee land of north-eastern Oklahoma. The shoulder was littered with debris, ripped up tyres and sharp metal shrapnel from previous traffic incidents. The spray from the 70mph cars and trucks made visibility poor and the riding was unpleasant alongside a three-lane freeway. I removed my sunglasses as I rode so I could take a closer look at the map. As I peered at my wet handlebar phone mount, I heard a sudden whooshing sound of escaping air. I looked a could see white liquid spewing from my front tyre as the sealant from within the rim tried to plug the torn surface of my front tyre. As I pleaded for the tyre to seal, a larger bit of debris knocked my bike and my sunglasses, which had been precariously hanging from my mouth and I dropped them on the roadside. With air leaking from my tyre fast, and not wanting to lose my only pair of sunglasses I pulled up in the grass verge and tried to scoop a little mud into the cut in the tyre as I shuffled back to grab my glasses. I found them amongst the tyre carcasses at the side of the road, popped one of the lenses back in, and proceeded to get off the highway as quickly as possible.
The misery of the afternoon wasn't yet complete with the rain coming down ever-harder and the temperatures dropping further. I had to stop frequently to try and replace the air in my front tyre in an fight with the mud and sealant mix now only letting out air in small whispers. I'd decided a full inner tube change would be take too long, risking getting my dry kit wet as well as dropping my body temperature if I were to remain stationary at the side of the road for too long, so opted for the occasional shorter stop to re-inflate the tyre. In between air fill-ups, the road I was following parallel to the freeway eventually stopped and became a thick, muddy and sandy mess of a trail, causing my bike to make all kinds of horrible noises, and slowed my progress to a crawl. The slow going meant I was getting colder, spending time navigating the tough terrain rather than really pumping the pedals to maintain body heat. The rain and cold made it difficult for me to operate my phone to check my route, let alone call for assistance should I really need it. Frustrated with the slow trail, and just before it ultimately came to a dead end, I pulled off and re-joined the freeway over the second river-barrier in my way. With heavy rain the spray from the frequent cars in the rush-hour commuter traffic, visibility was poor, even with all my lights on. This particularly alarmed me as I approached the bridge over the river to find that the hard shoulder disappeared and I was to be on the main carriageway, travelling at less than a quarter of the speed of the rest of the traffic, when in all likelihood they wouldn’t be able to see me. By the grace of God, or my sheer dumb luck (depending on your worldview, again, we're inclusive here), as I approached the bridge the traffic frequency dropped slightly and gave me a small window to get across. I sprinted the 300m across, and I mean hammered it - I haven't sprinted that hard in a long time. As I approached the far side of the bridge I could hear a car thundering up behind me, and I had no way of knowing if they'd seen me. As they got closer and I could almost feel the warmth of his car heater on the back of my neck, when the beginnings of a hard shoulder started to emerge and I practically leapt onto it, dropping a couple of inches from the side of the main carriageway just to be free of the cars, potentially still oblivious to my presence.
I eventually made it to my rest stop that night, broken, cold, with a flat tyre and a freeway experience that I wouldn't want to relive anytime soon (except when detailing it, above, in such a dramatic, vivid imagery). My host was a former US Navy journalist, and was incredibly interesting. She had a great mind-set of pursuing fun and challenge, originally signing up for the Navy as she wanted to visit Italy and had heard some Naval crews are stationed out there. She seemed to have a great 'why not?' attitude.
I'd planned a short day from the Navy house in Broken Arrow, to downtown Tulsa to find a repair for my bike tyre. However, 10 miles in to the planned 12 miles to the bike store, I heard a calamitous noise and clunked to disheartening stop riding up hill, breaking my rear derailleur and proceeding to topple over as I couldn’t unclip my shoes in time. Jumping back up I assessed the damage and quickly realised this was not a simple fix. Stranded at the roadside, I let my host for the night, Jim, know that I'd had some issues and he drove out to pick me up. What a chap! We spent the morning ringing around bike stores for parts, and then ringing round retailers in the whole of the Sooner State to try and get me back on the road as quickly as possible. I had an excellent call with Reinout from Excel Sports who agreed to ship parts to me overnight in an effort to support my cycle. He was incredibly supportive and understanding of my predicament - thanks dude!
On the day of writing this we have received the correct parts, and put the bike back together with help from the guy's at Spoke House Cycles, Tulsa. It turned out there were a few more things that could need sorting out with the bike so perhaps it was a good thing I had these issues before things got more rural out west. An important lesson was to always bring spare rear mech hangers - not necessarily a transferable lesson to those non-cyclists amongst the readership, but an important lesson nonetheless.
As I've spent the last couple of days exploring Tulsa, I've been reflecting on the incidents of the past week. I've been reminded again of the importance of good kit, particularly getting great waterproof gear so you never have to worry about not having dry clothes or keeping dry yourself, and the importance of knowing the vital bits of kit you need on your bike, and keeping a spare of the more nuanced parts in case of emergencies. Deeper than that though, I've continued to be moved by the continued kindness, openness and willingness of others to share aspects of their life with me, and help me out when my body and gear are starting to let me down. From the provision of snacks, laundry, and beds, to offers of a pick-up in the car within the next couple hundred miles, to assistance from experts in tracking down the correct parts for bike. It's humbling to experience this level of generosity, and to know I've got this far with the help of so many significant characters in the story line of this trip, and I could have missed it all by staying at home and not setting foot out of the door.
Moreover, this last week has taught me to stay flexible, embracing change and the importance of being comfortable with uncertainty. Being able to roll with the punches this week, embracing the challenge of the wind, of the unplanned trip to Arkansas and the unforeseen mechanical issues has led me into meeting a whole bunch of different people, and given me a few days to explore Tulsa, Oklahoma, somewhere I hadn't planned on really seeing. Being able to adapt plans and embrace the path I'm on is a lesson I'm still learning - I can remember about 10 winters backs when I spent a whole morning shovelling snow so I could play basketball in the garden, rather than just playing in the snow. I'm trying to learn to embrace new situations, and say yes to new experiences, even if they deviate from my initial plans. I'm learning that too rigid a focus on achieving something in a particular way, on a particular timescale or according to your particular plan can actually get in the way of achieving the overarching goal, and not to lose sight of what the overarching goal is. For example, I hadn't even planned on riding in Oklahoma, I'd hoped to be over in the Colorado Rockies by now, and definitely hadn't planned to be shelling out on a new derailleur. But, adapting the plan, still focused on achieving the goal of making it to LA, I've met all kinds of different people, seen places and states I never would have visited, and learned more about my ability to cope with setbacks. I'm learning that although you can't control situations, you can control your interpretation of them, so try and embrace the interpretation that serves life the best.
With the help of Spoke House Bicycles, Excel Sports and Phat Tyre, Tulsa, the bike running smoothly again and is ready for the remaining 1700miles to Los Angeles!